From the Editor’s Desk: On Dialogue

Rather than bore you with grammatical nuances, today I just want to look at something purely stylistic. Dialogue, arguably, is the most important piece of character development in any lengthy work of fiction (or non-fiction for that matter). Inarguably it’s in the top three. It can sharply illuminate a personality by magnifying how that character interacts with others, or in certain cases his or her self. Graphic novels and comic books rely heavily on verbal interaction between characters, and us prose-hucksters can learn a thing or two from the pages of Marvel, DC, and the like.

I’ll climb down from my pulpit in a minute, but in a society that’s increasingly more obsessed with immediacy and the now-now-now, there may be a reason for the renaissance of graphic novels, comic books, and image-heavy amalgamations of art and prose. Dialogue is the fastest way an author can move a story. Stylistically, linguistically, bouncing words off of characters propels a story faster than anything else.

To keep your dialogue compelling, there’s a few guidelines to follow. I will (un-modestly) share 3 key things to keep in mind when figuring out what your characters want to say:

1) Accents – use ’em at your peril – One of the hardest things to do with dialogue as a writer is make written words sound organic and authentic, like someone’s really talking. We may be tempted to add an accent or dialectic conventions to a speaker. It’s been done, both poorly and effectively, but be wary: the fastest way to turn your character into a caricature is through hokey accents. You’ve probably read Harry Potter. Hagrid, Fleur, and Viktor Krum are all examples of poor dialogue execution, and characters (at least in the prose) marred by a stylistic choice.

To me, a less-is-more approach works the best to embody accents. Maybe throw in an “’em” instead of a them, or an “ain’t” here or there. This works way more effectively than the full-on Transylvania or John Wayne treatment. Some of the most successful authors (Stephen King, Dan Abnett) will have another character react to their speech (leaving off –r sounds or turning -a’s into –o’s) which, to me, is a much more effective way to portray an accent than directly in the dialogue. Food for thought.

2) Contractions – embrace them – I’m sure it’s advice you’ve heard before, but most human beings include a lot of contractions when they talk. Would you tell someone you “can not make it to their party”? No, you’d say “I can’t make it.” When a person reads your work, they’re imagining someone talking when they see those magical quotation marks. If there’s no contractions in between them, it feels like they’re reading someone trying to make dialogue rather than listening to a conversation.

Use this to your advantage Sci-Fi or Fantasy writers! You’ll notice famous (or infamous) aliens, robots, etc. never used contractions. Mr. Spock, Data the Android, countless computerized voices, they all avoided shortening word combinations. It makes them feel less human, cold, which was precisely the point with most of these characters.

3) Identifiers – avoid them, or keep it simple – Identifiers are the literary equivalent of a necessary evil. The “he said” “she said” of the literary world. Context is a much better medium for indicating who is speaking. Trust the readers to intelligently determine the course of a scene with your description and pacing. In a two-character conversation they’re entirely unnecessary. The ping-pong back and forth dialogue feels snappy and natural. With a group of three or more, however, identifiers sometimes feel necessary, and they are.

Try to stick to simple “he said” or “she said” and don’t fall into an adverbial trap of adding “slyly, quietly, or loudly”. It’ll be much more effective to let your description of the scene describe how things are said, rather than relying on the oft-dreaded -ly.

Thank you for once more listening to me opine on writing. Take everything I say with a grain of salt, it’s all simple experience speaking from a lifetime of reading and a critical eye.

If you have any questions about writing or editing, feel free to reach out. Complaints…go ahead and write them down. And then throw them in the trash can.

Signing off.


One thought on “From the Editor’s Desk: On Dialogue

  1. I am loving your “From the Editor’s Desk” series. All good points on dialogue – I’m with you especially on the accents. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine, as it often detracts from the actual dialogue and even the character. Although, because I loved “Harry Potter,” I overlooked the ridiculous accents used, but also because the books (at least in the beginning) were created primarily for kids and many young readers love accents. 🙂


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